Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Joel Silver's Sherlock Holmes

Guy Richie may be listed as director of Sherlock Holmes, but the most important credit is probably 'Producer: Joel Silver'. Silver - producer of Lethal Weapon (and its sequels), Predator (and its sequel), The Matrix (and its sequels) and Die Hard (and its...you get the idea) - has a reputation for having writers 'design' action sequences for his movies and then, when the script doesn't work and the movie isn't made, stripping those sequences out and using them in ones that end up being produced.

Those thoughts went through my head in the days following my viewing of Sherlock Holmes. This isn't a movie I hated, because the whole cast (except Mark Strong, as the dullish villain) are uniformly ... well, excellent isn't the word. Entertaining, fits better. It's just that after I saw it, I found myself thinking, 'yeah, that was okay', but I just couldn't put my finger on why I wasn't particularly taken with it.

As I said, Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law (in his best performance since his robot turn in A.I.) - as Holmes and Watson, respectively - and Rachel McAdams (although her roll was clearly truncated - sequences with her that appeared in the trailer are not in the film) all acquit themselves well. The picture also looks grimy great, evoking a just-post Industrial Revolution London with a perpetual gloom/smog/fog hanging over the city. But there was something missing.

Part of the problem is that the committee-written script (four writers are credited) is thin - Strong plays Lord Blackwood who supposedly used black magic to thwart the hangman at the start of the film and then spends the rest of the picture planning the destruction/downfall of the British government (oh yeah, and Professor Moriarty is hanging around the background awaiting the inevitable sequel) - and, for what there is, it's overlong (128 minutes, but it feels longer) and sometimes hard to follow.

Director Guy Ritchie with Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law.

Richie - known for his ADD-infused gangster pix such as RocknRolla (ironically, Silver produced, but he seemed less meddlesome there) and Snatch - where he's just a gun for hire. Sure, some sequences have the Richie energy - Holmes 'explaining' and then Richie showing us in slo-mo how Holmes will go about beating up a bad guy (and then we see the same sequence at regular speed). Plus there is much pleasure to be taken in the fact that the film doesn't cheat (almost every clue Holmes needs to solve the puzzle are shown to us in advance, but we still need 'olmes to unravel it for us), but there is a plodding nature here that I don't associate with Richie. But I do with Silver.

Silver's action pictures have always seemed rote (for example, Richard Donner -- director of the Lethal Weapon movies - seemed unable to make a tense action film, such as the underrated 16 Blocks (2006), until he was free of Silver), and Sherlock Holmes is no exception. Forty-eight hours after seeing it, I can't recall one clever line and there are only a couple of memorable sequences that stick out.

Perhaps one of the reasons this film doesn't work can be found in the sacrificing of Rachel McAdams' role as Irene Adler for the sake of action sequences. For one thing, it means we lost the chance to see the developing chemistry between her and Downey's Sherlock. And that may be the biggest issue of all. In most Silver-produced films character always suffers at the altar of action. And suffer here it does.

--David Churchill is a film critic and author. He is currently putting the finishing touches on his first novel, The Empire of Death.

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